It is crazy how quickly things can change. Five weeks ago, Colts fans were anxiously awaiting the return of franchise quarterback Andrew Luck from an ankle injury. The team, masterfully put together by general manager Chris Ballard, was getting attention nationwide as a threat in the AFC and as a possible Super Bowl contender.
Then, on August 25th, 2019, Andrew Luck announced his retirement and everything changed. Colts fans had to wrestle with waves of emotion over the decision and had no choice but to lower their expectations for the season.
National media? They wrote off the Colts completely.
Interestingly, backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett had positioned himself for just this situation. Not only did he fill in for Andrew Luck when he missed the entire 2017 season, he also took every training camp and mini-camp repetition with the first team over the course of the last two off-season programs. He grew so close with his defensive teammates from running the scout team offense that he joined them for celebrations after turnovers.
Still, questions remained surrounding how Brissett would fare. His circumstances in 2017 were horrifying, not only because he didn’t have a chance to get to know his teammates or the offense before arriving after a late preseason trade but he was playing behind the same offensive line that was partially responsible for Luck taking a beating.
How would that all change in 2019? Two seasons in a row in the same offensive scheme, under quarterback whisperer and elite offensive mind Frank Reich, with one of the league’s most dominant offensive lines and a stable full of weapons in the backfield, at tight end, and young promising prospects at wide receiver.
Yeah, this is a different ball game.
So far, Brissett has been somewhat inconsistent. Weeks 1 and 3 were particularly impressive, while Week 2 was challenging. It’s fair to recognize that any division game is more challenging if for no other reason than the teams play each other twice per year and familiarity becomes a factor.
Still, Brissett showed some of the traits that got him in trouble in 2017: holding onto the ball too long, looking uncomfortable fitting the ball into tighter windows in man coverage, an inability to throw receivers open, a dangerous habit of trying to throw the ball to a receiver off-balance and in a hurry when a play breaks down — which will inevitably lead to turnovers in the future, and a little bit of the issue he had with touch on short passes.
Having said that, statistically, his first three games are impressive. He completed his first 16 passes last week against the Atlanta Falcons. He has only thrown one interception.
He has looked... good. At times, really good.
The question that Brissett will need to answer this season is just how good he can be. Is he the long-term answer in Indianapolis or is he a temporary solution? In many ways, the answer to those questions are up to him. Today, the Colts are favored against the Raiders at home with a spread that is higher than at any time in a game with Brissett as a starter.
They call these “should win” games, sometimes they are “trap” games. Can Brissett keep the current two-game winning streak alive and keep the Colts at the top of the AFC South? Can he put the team in a position to head into their bye week with a winning record? Can he overcome the injuries that have impacted some of his primary receiving weapons?
We’re about to find out.
Before we do, let’s take a look at some of the other keys to the game.
Tight Ends need to shine
A season ago, the Colts traveled to Oakland and won a hotly contested game. Former VCU basketball player, turned undrafted tight end, Mo Alie-Cox made what will likely be the catch of his career. His one-handed leaping catch looked similar to the viral Odell Beckham Jr. catch in the end zone in 2014.
Prior to the 2018 season, Chris Ballard signed free agent tight end Eric Ebron. He came to Indianapolis by way of Detroit and his history with the Lions fan base was... uncomfortable. It was clear that Ebron had a chip on his shoulder and something to prove in his first season with a new team.
Ebron put up one of the best tight end seasons in Colts history. He was a red zone weapon and regularly made big plays to blow open games. This season, he has been a little quiet.
Blue collar, trusted veteran Jack Doyle missed much of 2018 due to injuries. He has made a healthy return and has shined in both phases, most notably as a blocker in the best Colts running game fans have seen in years. He is the type of player that gets lost in coverage while defenders focus their attention elsewhere and he has been able to gash opponents who have made that mistake.
This tight end group is among the very best in the league. This group was strangely quiet the first two weeks of the season. Last week, things started to come to life. With Devin Funchess on injured reserve and T.Y. Hilton doubtful, Indianapolis will need to use this trio heavily.
Contain Josh Jacobs
Rookie first round running back Josh Jacobs is the biggest offensive weapon that Jon Gruden and Derek Carr have in their arsenal. He is a well-rounded back who can carry the load and do damage in a variety of ways. The defensive interior for the Colts has been unreliable in 2019. Too many big running plays have flipped the field in an opponents favor and this will have to get resolved soon or this weakness will likely be exploited every week.
Oakland has to hope to control the football. Gruden is an old-school offensive mind who will look to soften his opponents with the running game and use play-action to get the ball down the field. If the Colts can keep Jacobs from establishing a ground game, it should make life more difficult for the Raiders.
Darren Waller will be targeted — can the Colts cover him?
For years, the Colts have struggled to cover athletic tight ends. Austin Hooper had a big day last week for the Falcons, Delanie Walker led his team in receiving Week 2 in Nashville, and Hunter Henry caught four passes for 60 yards Week 1 in Los Angeles. It has become rather clear, if opponents want to get a lot of work done against the Colts secondary, they should target tight ends.
What makes Waller somewhat unique is that he is the type of hybrid tight end, a converted receiver, that has become more popular in the modern NFL passing game. He has taken to the transition comfortably and Jon Gruden has made clear that he plans to target him... a lot.
Do the Colts have an answer? Is Quincy Wilson the guy who they hope can cover players like Waller? Will they cheat coverage his way and force Carr to win isolated match-ups on the outside?
Slowing down Waller could effectively put a choke-hold on the Raiders passing game. If he gets going early, the defense will be on its heels.
RUN THE DAMN BALL
Look, Jacoby Brissett may very well turn out to be a legitimate NFL starter. He may be the second best quarterback in the AFC South right now. Still, he isn’t and shouldn’t be expected to be a player of Andrew Luck’s or Peyton Manning’s caliber.
That’s not to suggest that he can’t develop. I hope he continues moving in that direction. It is to suggest that forcing Brissett to carry a bad team like he tried to do in 2017 is not a winning formula.
You know what is?
Utilize arguably the best offensive line in the NFL to brutalize the opponent. Let Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins carry a healthy portion of the load and get the Raiders defense sucking wind. The threat of the run has already started to lead to some very clean pockets in the play-action passing game and keeping the theme going could lead to another big home win.